NEW YORK — For opera fans around the world, the diva that will never die remains the glorious, inimitable Maria Callas, who now gets her say in “Maria by Callas.”
As the title implies, this is solely Maria Callas who speaks of her two, divided selves: the fiery artist who seized worldwide headlines with her remarkable performances, dazzling love affair with one of the world’s richest men and humiliating betrayal when he left her for Jacqueline Kennedy, and then the woman, Maria, who willingly sacrificed her career for love.
American-born Callas (1923-1977) won immediate fame on the world’s great opera stages in the early 1950s. She famously revived the art of “bel canto” singing and was a magnet with fans far beyond the opera world.
It was the documentary’s director Tom Volf (pronounced Wolf) who, after two years of filming interviews with Callas’ friends, inner circle and admirers, seized upon the notion that the soprano could tell her own story by painstakingly assembling diary entries, filmed interviews she gave, onstage performances and letters never before presented in public.
“The interviews,” Volf, 32, said over tea at the Langham hotel, “while interesting, left me wanting to stay with her. I realized the whole film should feel like we are with her from beginning to end.
“That was daunting.”
“Maria by Callas” astounds with operatic performance footage from archives that lets moviegoers see her performing signature arias in their entirety — and in color — onstage. Performances that are so moving the audience frequently breaks into applause.
One plus, her life has often been compared to a Greek tragedy. “From Callas’ perspective,” said Volf, “her life was not a tragedy. It can only seem tragic if you’re watching from the outside.”
But the role she loved and performed often was “Norma.”
“You can understand why Norma was her favorite character,” Volf said. “Bellini’s opera is about a woman who sacrifices everything for a man, only realizing later that this man loves another woman. She then does the ultimate sacrifice, which is death, for that reason.”
His film finds Callas on camera saying, “People ask me if I will write my memoirs. My life is written in the music I interpret.”
In that sense, “Maria by Callas” is a fitting epitaph.